At the workshop in 2008, they broke us into writing groups for peer critique. I had a few talented people in my group, then I had The Courtesan. Have you ever met someone in your craft, be it accountant, writer, pizza slinger or teacher, who was just so far ahead of you that they pissed you off, fascinated you, and inspired you all at the same time? That was my reaction the first time I read the work of The Courtesan.
Her prose was lyrical. Her imagery breathtaking. Her concept alluring.
See in her world, a swarm of massive insects had taken over almost everything. The survivors had built huge domes over the cities and tunnels to the other cities of the world. It had even worked for over a hundred years. Then the domes began to weaken and a few cities fell. Dumbfounded and hopeless, the engineers of the mightiest city began to build a leader to save them. They crafted a great golem. A defender, a commander. They made a savior.
It was a child. A small girl golem with a cage for a chest and a golden heart.
The Courtesan had not been to see the agent by the first of the critiques, so she brought a few pages and it shut everyone down. Every face in the group fell except Prince. Everyone wanted to be somewhere else. But he was amazed. He wanted to hear more. But mostly he just wanted to learn from her. He asked her many questions. He decided that for her brilliance, he would hate her, but that would come later.
They talked about the book she had written and he wanted to know a little more about what had gone into its creation. How she had come up with the ideas and where she wanted the book to go next. Was this a series, was this a standalone? He asked her so many questions that the group was late in getting everyone else read. After the group, they talked, but she was very shy and left soon.
Prince went to bed that night thinking about the little golem girl with the golden heart and he knew one day The Courtesan would be huge.
By the next peer critique, her book had been shattered. The agent found many things wrong with her premise, had hit a few other things, and she did not even bring pages to read. She stayed quiet during the meeting until she was talking about my work.
See Prince had been beaten on by the agent but not broken, and he walked the workshop as if nothing had happened. He was not downtrodden. He was not humbled. Prince had just been born, so the words spoken to us about the mess our book was did not hit him after years of planning and preparing. It just bounced right off of him.
His first submission to the peer critique was a scene where a half demon has been summoned from hell and has just woken after sleeping for two weeks. He is hungry, and they bring him wagon loads of food and kegs of ale and wine, and he devours it all. The scene is pretty terrifying and very gross and in the end, it is cannibalism that finally fills him.
My second submission was about the two fairies falling in love with each other, and the main protagonist of the book is getting his wings inked with an ink mixed with steel to allow him to fight. It is a very intense scene of budding love where every bit of the dialogue is dripping with potential and dread. It is also visually stunning and the group was in shock.
“This is the same book?” Grisled said. “This seems way off from the scene we read a few days ago.”
“Well it is. The book is pretty varied. It is all over the place.”
“That is going to be hard to sell,” The Courtesan said. “But you have to try. It is beautiful the way it swings back and forth like that. And I love the name of the protagonist. ‘Gentry Mandrake’ is an awesome name.”
That is literally the last time you will ever see me write the word protagonist. I hate the word. It sucks all the verve out of the hero or heroine of the book. It’s a terrible word. You should all stop using it.
That was the last time I would see The Courtesan at this workshop except in class. Every now and then the agent, while teaching, would have us take a minute and write something out. He took volunteers to read what they had written to the class and she volunteered a few times. Every time she did, the room fell to a hush.
See, The Courtesan wrote the most breathtaking prose of all the writers in the room. And her idea was stunning. She had been knocked to the ground by the agent’s words, but I tried my best to pick her up in that meeting.
Three years later, I am back at another workshop. This is the one The Optimist will invite me to dinner at. You will have to read a bit more to get to that story, but I can tell you there were a lot of talented writers at this one. And I saw The Courtesan here, too.
It was a weekend long affair and dinner was not in the price of admission. Lunch and breakfast I think, maybe breakfast. But definitely lunch.
Anyway, I am standing against a wall talking to another writer during a break and The Courtesan walks past. As I see her, I point to the writer I am talking to and say, “That is The Courtesan. Her writing is beautiful and she has the best idea for any urban fantasy I have ever heard of.” I smile at her. “But she doesn’t remember me.”
She smiles as she walks past. “You’re Gentry Mandrake. It’s impossible to forget you.” Then she is gone.
I ask her if she has anyone sitting with her at our two-seat tables and she says yes. We ate lunch together, then back to class. When class is over I am talking to The Optimist and The Courtesan walks over and waits. When I am done talking, I turn to her and she smiles.
“A few of us are going to meet for dinner over a pizza and help a woman workshop her book. She needs a bit of help. A brainstorming mission, I guess. I can get you in if you want to help.”
So we went to the bar. Here is where we are supposed to get our pizza, but the kitchen is closed. I end up ordering Domino’s when this is over, but for now I am with them.
When The Courtesan introduces me she says, “This is Jesse Teller. He is the guy I told you about who wrote Gentry Mandrake.”
All wide eyes. All whispers, and they ask me questions. Well Prince has few answers, as The Genius is editing his manuscript and he doesn’t know what kind of condition it is in at the moment, but he says a few things then focuses the attention to the woman and her book.
The book is not hopeless but its premise needs work. Everything the other women suggest is weighed and examined. Everything Prince says is shot down by the woman who is writing the book. Soon he falls silent and they begin to talk about self-publishing. They talk about a woman who wrote and published on Amazon and by setting her book at 99 cents managed to build an empire. They say that might be the way to go. But I had no interest in that.
Self-publishing was not big at the time. It was in its fledgling years. Just beginning to show fruit, and I was just not interested in that route at all. I had heard that all money needs to flow toward the writer, not away from them, and with creating your own covers and paying for your own editing, I was just not going to do that.
In the end I would be forced to. In the end, the only way Mandrake would see light was to take him to the world myself. But we will get there.
The Courtesan and I had lunch with the keynote speaker one day. She just dropped into the booth next to us. “This seat taken?” she said.
“No, not at all,” Prince said.
The keynote speaker sat with her salad and began to eat and talk. We talked about the college she taught at and the book she had written. I asked her about the book she was working on right then, and she said she was putting together an outline. Said she needed to get her book approved by her publisher before she could write it.
“I need to get this career going,” I said. “I feel like I am wasting time. I have so many books I want to write.”
She looked up from her salad. “How many?”
“About thirty, maybe more,” I said.
She did not blink; she did not mutter. She just picked up her salad and her drink and walked away.
That is when I realized the traditionally published world did not work like I did. And that writers, real writers, were not going to take me seriously.
Few really have. Those who do, I call friend.
The Courtesan never rewrote or reimagined her little golem with the golden heart. She started writing Young Adult because it was selling. She switched over to romance when Young Adult dipped. See, she is one of those writers who can write anything. She can do all of it well. Last time I spoke to her she was producing Romance novels fast enough and had built up enough of a following that she was making over eighty thousand dollars a year.
The Courtesan is a magnificent writer. But I ache for the little golem girl with the golden heart.